Arnold Palmer (born 1929) amassed 92 golf championships in professional competition of national or international stature by the end of 1994. Sixty-one of the victories came on the U.S. PGA Tour. He was the first person to make $1 million playing golf.
Golf legend Arnold Palmer displayed unquestionable skill on the course, but even more importantly, he had much charisma. He almost singlehandedly brought golf out of the elite country clubs and into the consciousness of mainstream America. Throughout his career, Palmer attracted legions of fans—known collectively as "Arnie's Army"—who hung on his every shot, celebrating his successes along with him, and suffering his failures. Even in the twilight of his career, with failures on the links far outnumbering successes, Arnie's Army remained as loyal as ever.
Arnold Palmer was born in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Latrobe, an industrial town not far from Pittsburgh. His family had lived in the area since the early 1800s. Palmer's father, Milfred "Deacon" Palmer, worked at the Latrobe Country Club for more than 40 years, working his way up from grounds keeper to teaching pro. "Deac," as he was called, gave Arnold his first set of golf clubs when he was three years old. Arnold learned the fundamentals of the game on Latrobe's nine-hole course, which he would sneak onto at every opportunity. By the time he was eight, he was playing regularly with the older boys who worked as caddies at the course, and he became a caddie himself at the age of 11.
Attended Wake Forest
Palmer starting winning tournaments while he was still in high school. While starring for the Latrobe High School golf team, he lost only one match in four years. He also won three Western Pennsylvania Junior championships and three Western Pennsylvania Amateur titles during his high school days. During his senior year, Palmer met Bud Worsham, whose brother Lew was a professional golfer. At Worsham's urging, Palmer accepted a golf scholarship to Wake Forest College in North Carolina. He enrolled at Wake Forest in 1947, and quickly began winning, or coming close to winning, every amateur and intercollegiate tournament in sight.
During Palmer's senior year in college, his best friend and roommate, Bud Worsham, was killed in a car accident. Shaken by Worsham's death, Palmer left school and joined the Coast Guard, where he served for three years. In 1954 Palmer began selling painting supplies for a Cleveland company to support his participation in amateur golf. His victory in the National Amateur championship that year prompted Palmer to begin contemplating the idea of turning professional, making golf a job rather than an expensive and time-consuming hobby. In November of 1954 he turned pro and signed a sponsorship contract with the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. About a month later, he married Winnie Walzer, whom he had met while playing in an amateur tournament and proposed to three days later.
In 1955 Palmer won his first important professional tournament, the Canadian Open, earning $2, 400, his first big golf paycheck. He captured three tournaments the following year, and in 1957 took four more. He earned nearly $28, 000 that year, making him the number five moneywinner on the tour. Palmer won three tournaments during each of the next two seasons. One of his 1958 victories was the prestigious Masters, a tournament held annually in Augusta, Georgia. 1960 was the pivotal year in Palmer's golf career. Before the 1960 season was over, Arnold Palmer would become a household name, and was well on his way to becoming the most popular golfer ever to play on the professional circuit.
1960 Victories Brought Fame
Two spectacular come-from-behind wins in major tournaments cemented Palmer's reputation as a gambler who was never out of contention. In the 1960 Masters, Palmer birdied the final two holes to steal a certain victory from rival Ken Venturi. At the time, golf was just beginning to receive regular television coverage, and Palmer's good looks, combined with his dramatic performance on the course, instantly made him a national hero. Palmer mounted an even more astonishing comeback in the 1960 U.S. Open in Denver, where he scored a 65 in the final round to win the tournament from seven strokes—and 14 players—out of the lead. His fans began to believe that he was never too far behind to win. Palmer's style was an aggressive one. He hit the ball hard, with an awkward-looking swing that often left him careening off-balance, much to the delight of the weekend hacks in the audience whose own swings it resembled.
Those two stunning 1960 victories, along with seven other wins that year, established Palmer as the golden boy of golf. Tournament victories continued to come in droves over the next few years. Wins in major tournaments included the British Open in 1961 and 1962, and the Masters in 1962 and 1964. His galleries became so big that they became an annoyance to fellow players. His fans would stampede to the next fairway before the other players in his group had finished out the hole. They sometimes went so far as to heckle Palmer's opponents, especially archrival Jack Nicklaus. Each of Palmer's trademark mannerisms utterly mesmerized Arnie's Army—the way he hitched up his sagging pants, pitched his half-smoked cigarettes onto the grass, and grimaced at every missed putt.
Palmer quickly became not only the game's biggest star, but one of the nation's biggest celebrities. Never in the past were ordinary people drawn to a golf champion the way they were to Palmer. He became the most sought after person in the world for product endorsements. As his popularity grew, so did his interests outside of golf. Palmer became an avid pilot, and flew his own private jet to tournaments. He also dabbled in television and movie acting, and produced his own golf show. He became an author as well, churning out a new golf book every few years. As money rolled in from both golf and endorsements, Palmer became the richest athlete in the world, with a financial empire that spanned the golf equipment, clothing, printing, insurance, dry cleaning, and investment industries. His companies had branches in Australia, Japan, and Europe. Including earnings from his various businesses, Palmer's income soared to more than $1 million a year.
Named Athlete of the Decade
Although he continued to win the occasional tournament through the rest of the decade, the 1964 Masters was Palmer's last victory in a major event. Dry periods became more frequent and lasted longer. At times, it seemed as if his involvement in business was distracting him from golf. He sold several of his businesses off to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in the mid-1960s, but kept an active role in managing them. In 1969 Palmer was forced to withdraw from the PGA championship because of a hip injury, leading many people to believe that his brilliant career was at an end. After taking several months off to recuperate, however, he came back to win the last two events of the season. After another lengthy drought that lasted for most of the 1970 season—during which the Associated Press named him Athlete of the Decade—Palmer won the 1971 Bob Hope Desert Classic and three other tournaments that year.
Palmer won a couple of minor PGA titles during the 1970s, but overall his play was erratic. His Army, on the other hand, remained huge and loyal. In 1980 Palmer entered the Senior PGA tour, and enjoyed a bit of a career revival. He won the first Senior tournament he ever entered, the 1980 PGA Seniors championship. He also captured the 1981 United States Golf Association (USGA) Senior Open, and took the PGA Seniors again in 1984. In 1985 Palmer won the Senior Tournament Players Championship by 11 strokes, the largest margin of victory ever produced in that event. His last victory on the Senior tour was the 1988 Crestar Classic.
Palmer continued to play regularly, though inconsistently, in the 1990s. In 1994 he made his final appearance at the U.S. Open, fittingly located in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from his hometown. As Palmer finished his final round, the thunderous ovation of his Army brought him to tears. A similarly emotional scene accompanied his last appearance at the British Open in 1995. Fellow players, who call Palmer "the King, " realize that the great sums of money they are paid to play the game they love exist largely because of the efforts and charisma of Arnold Palmer. As current golf star Nick Faldo said during Palmer's farewell performance at the British, "If there had been no Arnold Palmer in 1960 … it might have been a little shed on the beach instead of these salubrious surroundings. You cannot say what the man has done for the game. It's everything."
Palmer has received countless honors, earning virtually every national award in golf. After his great 1960 season, he won both the Hickock Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year trophies. He is a charter member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, the American Golf Hall of Fame, and the PGA Hall of Fame. He is chairman of the USGA Member Program and served as Honorary National Chairman of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation for 20 years. He played a major role in the fund-raising drive that created the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women in Orlando. A long-time member of the Board of Directors of Latrobe Area Hospital, he established an annual fund-raising golf event for the institution in 1992.
Arnold Palmer underwent surgery for prostate cancer in January of 1997.
Further Reading on Arnold Daniel Palmer
McCormack, Mark H., Arnie: The Evolution of a Legend, Simon and Schuster, 1967.
Arnold Palmer's Biography, "http: //www.sportsline.com/u/fans/celebrity/palmer/bio.htm," July 22, 1997.
Condon, Robert J., The Fifty Finest Athletes of the 20th Century, McFarland and Company, 1990, pp. 112-114.
Dorman, Larry, "An Army Bids Palmer One Last Cheerio at Open, " in New York Times Biographical Service, July 1995, pp. 1058-1059.
Reilly, Rick, "Arnold Palmer, " in Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1994, p. 70.
Grimsley, Will, editor, The Sports Immortals, Prentice Hall, 1972, pp. 306-311.
Seitz, Nick, Superstars of Golf, Golf Digest, 1978.